How the West Was Won

By Bertil Lintner 11 June 2015

It’s a pity this book is only available in Norwegian. It would have been useful for a much broader audience to see what kind of naïveté prevails among Westerners trying to understand what has happened in Myanmar over the past few years.

According to the book’s author Kristoffer Rønneberg, a correspondent for the Norwegian daily Aftenposten, Norway was behind it all. The new “democratic” course charted by the Myanmar government, Rønneberg writes, is “in my view the most significant victory for Norway’s authorities in recent times.”

In all fairness, it should be said that “Veien til Mandalay: En reise fra Burma til Myanmar” (“The Road to Mandalay: A Journey from Burma to Myanmar”) is mainly a travel book and Rønneberg’s accounts of his visits to various parts of the country are lively and interesting. But when it comes to his attempts to understand Myanmar politics, he evidently ventures into unfamiliar territory.

He is not alone in believing that it was Western engagement with Myanmar’s generals that led them to embark on a process of change after conducting a completely fraudulent election in November 2010.

The Danish-Australian academic Morten Pedersen suggested in an interview in April with the Institute for Security and Development Policy—a Swedish think-tank not known for its astute analyses—that “re-engagement by Western countries has helped support and deepen the reform process” but “Western re-engagement has not gone far enough… [and] there is an urgent need to demonstrate to the top generals in particular that the military too stands to benefit from reform.”

If anything, both Rønneberg’s and Pedersen’s views on Myanmar reflect what amounts to a blatantly neo-colonial attitude. Words to the effect of: “We have to go and tell those funny little brown fellows how to run their country, and, because we are big and clever white guys, surely, they have to listen to us.”

It is, however, easy to imagine what the Myanmar generals’ reaction must have been when they received those Western proponents of engagement: “Those myaukpyu [white monkeys] are sort of amusing. But they are not very clever. So let’s use them.” Or words to that effect…

Countering China

The bitter reality is that it is the Myanmar generals who have successfully—and cleverly—managed to engage the West, not the other way round. The decision to re-approach the West was not taken because the generals were induced by some foreigners into a democratic awakening.

Internal, classified documents from the Myanmar military, compiled as early as 2004 and seen by this contributor, show that it was the country’s heavy dependence on China that prompted them to realize the importance of opening up to the West. One such document even lists the names of Western academics and think-tankers who were in favor of “engagement.”

But the officers who compiled those documents were astute enough to understand that any rapprochement with the West would require certain political initiatives such as the release of political prisoners, more press freedom and freedom of expression, a proper constitution for the country and a government that was not overtly military in nature. However, to give up power to a democratically elected government was never—and is still not—on the agenda.

It is also certain that “the China factor” was an important consideration when the United States decided to change its policy from one of isolation, sanctions and boycotts to “engaging” with the quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein that assumed power in March 2011.

Myanmar’s only really close ally during this period of isolation was China, and its dependence on Beijing was so great that the country was sometimes described as a Chinese client state. All that has now changed, and Myanmar may be the only example in Asia of how the United States has managed to expand its influence at the expense of China’s.

Myanmar’s reform process has never been what it seemed—nor was the West’s response to it. The United States, naturally, has policies and priorities other than their oft-repeated support for democracy and human rights. The main issue that no one wants to talk about openly is, of course, the rising power and influence of China in the Asia-Pacific region—and here, there was a meeting of minds between America’s strategic thinkers and Myanmar’s generals.

Exuberant because of its success in this regard, the United States has abandoned talk of “free and fair elections” and Washington is now calling for the polls to be “transparent, inclusive, and credible.” The civil war, which is now more intense than at any time since the late 1980s, is conveniently brushed aside as a bump on the road to peace. Criticisms of ongoing human-rights abuses have become muted, if expressed at all. No one wants to hear any bad news. That’s not good for the “engagement policy.”

A Trojan Reindeer?

One of very few interesting revelations in Rønneberg’s book is to be found on page 206: Norway’s turnaround from being a vocal supporter of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement to the main proponent of “engagement” was, according to him, “done in consultation with the US.”

That makes perfect sense. The United States could not directly “engage” the then ruling junta because of acts passed by Congress, and the other main Western power, the European Union, was also prevented from cozying up to Myanmar’s generals because it had similar policies.

But Norway was in an ideal position to act as a cutout for Western interests in Myanmar. Norway is not a member of the EU, but it is a partner of the United States in the Western defense alliance the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

All historians are aware of the tale of the Trojan horse, a subterfuge the ancient Greeks used to enter the city of Troy in disguise. So have we now seen a Trojan reindeer, with non-EU, NATO member Norway acting as a cutout for United States and perhaps also other Western strategic interests in Myanmar?

According to a human rights activist with long experience working on Myanmar issues: “By 2011 there had already been a marked shift in Norway’s policy, in favor of cooperation with the government and away from the exiled opposition, including what should have been non-politicized humanitarian assistance. Thein Sein became the poster-boy of Norwegian self-interest and corporate greed and the betrayal of the democratic opposition.”

The Spoils of Engagement

Indeed, Norway was awarded for its new policies with a lucrative contract for its telecom company, Telenor. The Norwegian ambassador to Bangkok, Katja Norgaard, who had been instrumental in implementing the new policies, went straight from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry to a high-placed job with Telenor.

Corporate greed went hand in hand with geostrategic considerations—“if we were not doing this, the Chinese would do it”—some Norwegian foreign ministry officials have said in private to pro-democracy activists. Perhaps Rønneberg is right in a sense: Myanmar has been a foreign-policy success for Norway. But not for turning Myanmar into a “democratic state,” which it is not.

At the same time, Norway’s new policies have also cost it a lot of goodwill among the population at large in Myanmar. It is no longer seen as a supporter of democratic change. It is also evident that the neo-colonial, patronizing attitudes of not only Norway but also of deluded academics like Pedersen will have little or no influence on actual, political developments in Myanmar.

The military has its agenda. Their “political process” has not stalled, as some Western observers like to put it in light of recent repressive actions against student-led social movements in the country; it was never meant to be more than this. The generals have succeeded. They have the West on their side, have lessened their dependence on China and, most importantly, they remain in power.

If Myanmar is ever going to become a functioning democracy, it will be because of actions taken by the Myanmar people themselves, not because of the Norwegian diplomats and Western academics who are evidently overestimating their ability to influence the people in power in Myanmar. Those outsiders are mere pawns in a game of which they understand very little.

“Veien til Mandalay: En reise fra Burma til Myanmar” by Kristoffer Rønneberg is published by Dreyers Forlag, Oslo, Norway. This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.